It’s tempting as hell to summarize how people relate to brands in either the way a brand tells it’s story or the the way a customer experiences a brand across a variety of touch points. Ultimately the stories and the experiences all add up to how an individual perceives your brand. However at the ground level—at the core, you have two types of people working behind the scenes to create these experiences and tell the stories. Experience People and Storytellers.
I am by no means an expert on this subject matter, but for what it’s worth—here is my perspective based on personal observations in the working world. In 1996 I knew I wanted to be a part of the Web—not just in my personal life, but as a professional. I wanted to make a living and learn as much as I could about the new media as possible. I was currently working as a broadcast designer for Fox News. If you asked me what I did back then, I would have immediately answered that I was a graphic designer. Before that I designed catalogs and freelanced identity design. When I interviewed for my first Web job at the Chicago Tribune (chicagotribune.com), the editor asked me why I wanted to work on the Web. I told him that I used visual design to tell stories—and that I desired to tell those stories in an interactive fashion.
And looking back, my answer to his question was accurate. I did just that. I worked with journalists and news people while learning HTML and Web design basics to design sites that told “interactive stories”. Instead of creating an information graphic you would merely look at, I created graphics you could click on! (a big deal back then) I also came up with headlines and selected photos for the homepage stories on a daily basis.
Then something interesting happened. Part of my job became to re-design areas of the site that required users to register. Or to work on other sites doing similar kinds of design. At first I hated it. I didn’t feel like I was telling stories at all. That’s because in a way—I wasn’t. I was being tasked to improve the experience of certain areas of the site and I didn’t know much about this kind of thing. But I quickly learned. And I learned to enjoy it. I realized that many of the design principals I was taught in school could be applied in this area. To simplify. To not overwhelm. To help guide users through a process providing visual cues. That's what visual communications was all about,
Fast forward a couple of years. One of my clients at agency.com was Grainger, a large B2B distributor with a fully functional transactional site that could do pretty much anything you could think of in relation to e-commerce. My team and I spent years evolving the site experience. We prototyped, we tested, we personified customers, we built, we re-built, we designed in iterations, and after significant effort—we helped evolve an interactive experience to be both more business and people friendly. But were we telling stories? Not at that level. The site was definitely part of a larger brand story (or experience), but we were helping to make a very specific existing experience better.
But other projects did include more storytelling aspects. When HP decided to sell iPods—we had to both create an experience and tell a story within the parameters of a marketing focused Website. Here I would say that the lines were much more blurred between the experience and the story. We had to tell the story a certain way. There was a position. There was a strategy. And the story was being told in many other mediums such as TV. Unlike Grainger, on that project we had Experience People and Storytellers working together.
And it wasn’t always easy.
That brings me to current times. From my perspective we can talk about great experiences and compelling stories as much as we want—but I think an emerging reality is that the Experience People and Storytellers are going to have to make significant strides in how we relate to each other. In my opinion, an intimate brand relationship is formed through a collection of experiences and reinforced through stories. Think about it in these terms. If you work for an agency and you are focusing on an interactive initiative—how much coordination is there at the brand strategy level? How much between the teams that devise the messaging and the ones that create the experiences?
Here’s a personal example that I’ve referenced before. I’ve had positive experiences with Citibank over many years. From the ATMs to the branches, to their online banking. They have done right by me. And there’s something about their brand personality that just works for me (from the design of the branches to the logo etc.) So when a clever campaign like the “Thank You” one comes up—I’m fine with it because I already have developed an affinity for the brand. It reinforces what I currently feel. So the Experience People have done their job. They’ve provided me with consistently good experiences. And the Storytellers have done their job—they’ve told me memorable stories that reinforce my feelings. Together, both add up to loyalty. But at ground zero are the people creating those communications designing experiences? Are the people designing the ATMs telling stories?
So back to my personal experience as it relates to marketing and creativity. I have a hunch that the brands which do a good job of getting the Experience People to perfectly sync up with the Storytellers are going to be the ones who stand out in the end. To bring this back to earth, I’ll reference another example. Nikewomen.com Unlike my Grainger example, I think the Nikewomen site combines both experience with story—both are dialed up in a big way. The site uses video, attitude and music to relate to their intended audience. But it also SELLS product. You can buy any of the clothing items you see in the video. Now at surface level this all sounds simple. But think about the teams who worked on this. On one hand you have video directors, screen writers, choreographers, art directors etc. responsible for highly produced multimedia that people would be willing to sit back and watch on their PC screen. And on the other, you have information architects, developers, visual designers etc. working together to deliver a fluid commerce experience that actually works and is easy for people to use. And it’s all wrapped up in one “Website”.
Experience People + Storytellers working side by side? You bet.